Football is a simple game,” explained Gary Lineker, formerly the captain of England’s team. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Billions of fans will nonetheless pour their hopes into the World Cup, which began in Russia on June 14. Many people will join in even if their countries have not made it to the competition.
Bangladeshis follow the World Cup fervently, ignoring killjoy officials who have tried to stop them flying flags. The flags of Argentina and Brazil, that is—Bangladesh’s national team is ranked 197th out of 207 in the world and has never qualified for the World Cup.
The Economist is looking forward to the competition, too. Not because we think the country that hosts our head office has much of a chance of winning it—we are too rational for that. But because, first, improbable athleticism, drama and heroism can elevate the game to the level of art (see goo.gl/t96T3c). And, second, because we see in the World Cup the fulfilment of some of our most cherished values.
Admittedly, much about the tournament is distasteful. Its governing body, FIFA, has a woeful history of cronyism and corruption. This year’s competition will be a fillip for Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime.
(In March, after Russia tried to murder an exile and his daughter in the city of Salisbury, England briefly considered withdrawing from the World Cup, but then decided to express its disapproval by—horrors!—instructing Princes William and Harry to boycott the tournament.)
Yet the competition itself, as opposed to the murky process of deciding where it is played, showcases progress. Teams really are better than they used to be. It also rewards good government. Autocratic regimes such as China and Russia can ruthlessly drill track-and-field athletes—indeed, the Olympic games sometimes resemble an authoritarian pageant. But dictatorships are rubbish at football, which requires more creativity and flair. The contrast between the former East and West Germany is striking. The East trained massively muscled shot-putters; the West, sublime shot-makers. Only four countries rated “not free” by Freedom House, a charity, have qualified for this year’s World Cup, and none is likely to get far. The last country with an autocratic government to win the tournament was Argentina in 1978. The women’s contest has only ever been won by democracies (America, Germany, Japan and Norway), though China once made it to the final.
International football punishes inward-looking countries and rewards those with more cosmopolitan attitudes. When picking team managers, wise countries pass over their national heroes and appoint managers of any nationality who have proved themselves in western Europe’s tough football leagues. They also call upon their diasporas. African countries can field half-decent teams largely because so many of their players have refined their skills abroad. Rich-country teams also benefit from the talents of immigrants. Fully half of France’s victorious squad in 1998 were of migrant stock.
Why nations fail
Football can also teach countries how to spot and hone human capital. The best performers not only have systems for finding gifted children, but also ways of spotting late developers who failed to make the first cut. Their academies turn out intelligent, creative players rather than dribbling automatons. Then, if they are clever, they drop their best footballers into a competitive market. A simple model of countries’ aptitude for football, which weighs things like wealth and interest in the game, suggests that America ought to be doing better (see goo.gl/7yE4sc). One possible reason for the failure of its men’s teams is that America’s professional soccer league is a cartel. Salaries are capped, and the lower-division teams in which domestic players might develop cannot be promoted.
So liberal internationalists should enjoy the World Cup, despite the Putinophile propaganda that will no doubt disfigure it from time to time. Football, like life, is gloriously unpredictable. For what it is worth, our model suggests that one country is best-placed to dominate the beautiful game; indeed, it has performed slightly worse than it should have done over the years. That country is Germany.